Malta’s Rock Shelters

After the massive death toll of the Illustrious Blitz in January 1941, it seemed that the only safe haven during Luftwaffe air raids was underground.  The Governor was determined to provide bomb-proof shelters as a matter of urgency.  Malta’s rock provided the ideal cover, but underground shelters would take a long time to complete.  Over 2000 miners and other labourers were given the task of digging out hundreds of rock shelters in key locations.


Shelter in former railway tunnel, Valletta (NWMA)

“There were public shelters and private ones all were dug down with more than 10 feet of rock thickness overhead. The rocks in [Dingli] are not that hard but ten feet of it over your head was safe enough. The authorities went at this exercise of providing private shelters in great earnest. In fact some ten shelters were dug around the village.

Luckily for us there were enough workers who were professional diggers in rock. They had had great experience in an exercise that had been going on in the village during the previous ten years:…digging shafts some four feet wide and going down till they reached the clay layer…[where] water was found… On each shaft a wind pump was erected and a reservoir was dug or built near it.

As soon as war started it became illegal to dig such shafts. This released a number of skilled workers in this art of rock digging. An ingenious manner of keeping a straight wall when digging was the use of an antique lit oil lamp with a wick which was put in a whole in the wall. It was so placed as to create a shadow of say one inch wide on the face of the rock being cut. This shadow was strictly followed and the walls of shelters were straight as if mechanically cut.”                                                                                   Joseph Farrugia, Attard 2011


By June 1941 the workforce had increased to 5,500 by June 1941, nearly 500 public rock shelters had been finished and another 400 were in progress.  In all they could house 138,000 people.  Another 90,000 had access to alternative shelters:

“I was born in April 1937 and when war broke out my family moved to Lija, a village which was considered to be safer than areas around the harbours where we lived.  The family spent 18 months living at the bottom of the well which was inside the house. A passageway and two rooms were dug out from the bottom of the well; we slept down there and emerged a few times a day when the ‘all clear’ siren sounded. I remember one or two bombs falling nearby but at that young age I wasn’t alarmed by the whistling sound as they fell.”  Edward Caruana Galiza, 2011

This still left thousands with nowhere to go during an air raid.  Teams of volunteers, including women, joined in the digging, giving their labour in return for knowing their locality would have enough shelter.  At the end of November 1941, the Governor announced there was space available in a shelter for the whole population of Malta.


By February 1942, with raids often continuous throughout the night, shelters became congested with chairs and bedding brought in for comfort and rest.  The two square feet per head originally allowed was insufficient.  Anticipating a night of raids, people began to rush to shelters straight after supper.  Spaces were often over-subscribed:

“When an air raid alarm is given, huge crowds of people can be seen heading for [the shelter at 111 Kingsway, Valletta]…large enough to hold at least 150 people, whilst in a raid this place is sheltering approximately 300 people with more than 50 persons outside the passage hoping to get in.”


Shelter in South St, Valletta (NWMA)

As one newspaper reported:    

“The shelter at the bottom of South Street, Valletta is absolutely choked with beds so that people with more consideration for others who have not brought a bed down with them find it very difficult to find a place to stand inside the shelter.”

Excerpts from When Malta Stood Alone, Joseph Micallef, Interprint 1981

In February 1942 the Government began to appoint Shelter Wardens who would allocate places in shelters to named individuals, and keep the spaces clean.  They also decided to allow private individuals to excavate cubicles in shelters, creating up to twelve additional places each.  Others felt the time had come to provide their own shelters:

“The public shelters were soon filled up with the people bringing down straw mattresses to sleep on during the night in the wide corridors hewn below. Private citizens then dug small cubicles in the public shelters for them to sleep in. Others who could not afford it just threw their mattress on the empty space on the floor. Chamber pots were carried down too.

We dug our shelter at the basement of our house and in it we had three cubicles for us and our two aunts. We went as deep as the public shelter and left a skin of about three inches thickness so that in case our house came down we could escape by knocking down the thin shield of rock separating us. A sledge hammer for this eventuality always lay next to this area.”                                                           Joseph Farrugia, Attard 2011


MGARR SHELTER  Mgarr: 12 metres deep and 225 metres long and dug entirely by hand.

MALTA AT WAR MUSEUM  Birgu: a museum dedicated to the ordeal suffered by the Island; includes a maze of tunnels and galleries used as an air raid shelter, including cubicles and contemporary artefacts.


11 responses to “Malta’s Rock Shelters

  1. Aristide Calleja

    March 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    I was hoping to read about the bombing on dockyard, where many men died after a smoke screen shelter caught fire and the men died of smoke inhalation. One of them was my uncle, Aristide Formosa. How well I remember the Victory Kitchens. We probably ate cats and dogs as a beef stew, but they kept us alive.

    • maltagc70

      March 7, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      Thank you for your comments. The recorded date for the death of your uncle, Aristide Formosa, is 14th February 1943, not yet covered by maltagc70. Ed.

    • Helen Borg

      February 4, 2017 at 6:29 pm

      I assure you, you did not eat cats and dogs as a beef stew, but it was real beef or mutton. If the mutton seemed a bit tough, the cook used to tenderise it before cooking it . Nothing sinister. I know, because I used to work in the Victory Kitchens. The cooks that I knew, were very family loving people.

      • Aristide Calleja

        February 7, 2017 at 7:15 pm

        Thank you Ms. Borg for enlightening me about the Victory Kitchen cooking beef and mutton. Very happy to hear that. I was born in Paula in 1929 and I remember hearing from my mother saying the dogs, cats and goats are mostly gone in the stew. Anyway, if does not matter if that is true as we got some badly needed protein. I am very thankful for the daily receipt of Malta War events and want to thank the individuals who had the foresight to save them for publication.

  2. Joanne King

    July 3, 2014 at 9:46 am

    I am interested in using these rock shelter photos for an exhibition and would be grateful if you would contact me about where to find the originals. many thanks.

  3. Aristide Calleja

    July 4, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    I have not a clue as to where you find the original photos of the shelter. Perhaps you may contact someone in the State Department in Valletta. They have created a War museum. In fact, I gave them some items that my uncle left behind. Good luck with your search. Regards, Aristide

  4. Joanne King

    July 5, 2014 at 7:40 am

    They are from the Imperial War Museum in London. I found them there yesterday, but they are not in their online catalogue yet. Thanks for your reply. Regards, Joanne.

  5. markjdoggett

    December 26, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    My father was born in a shelter in or near St Anne’s ditch in February 1942; I am traveling to Malta next year (2015, from Australia) and I would love to find the location of the shelter, even if only approximately. Can you please suggest where I can search for information about the location of the shelter or shelters in St Anne’s ditch?

  6. Aristide Calleja

    January 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    I asked my cousin to find out where St. Anne’s ditch is located. She will make some inquiries with people older than she is. I will let you know when I get the information. When in Malta, visit the state department office and I am sure they will help you if you do not hear from me.

  7. Valerie Nunan. nee' Robinson

    July 5, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    My father was in the RAMC in Malta during WW2 . Can anyone tell me where St. John’s ditch
    was? I should like to visit soon.

  8. Emmanuel Camilleri

    July 3, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    24th March 1942 was there a great tragedy in a Mosta shelter? i was told there were more than 30 people dead. is it true.


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